Music on Film

This weekend I finally got around to watching the Ramones documentary, End Of The Century, on DVD. I had missed it when it came out – I suspect that it had a limited theatrical run outside of the festival circuit -and always knew it would be a DVD rental someday. Well I though it was a great, if depressing, documentary about one of the most important bands in the history of rock. Yes, I said that. One of the most important bands in the history of rock. Think about it, without the Ramones, no Clash, no Sex Pistols and certainly no Green Day, maybe even no Replacements or Husker Du or even Nirvana. I even hear Ramones in power pop bands like The Smithereens- listen to “A Girl Like You” and tell me Pat DiNizio isn’t in the Joey Ramone register. The story of the band is, like I said, a dismal and depressing affair. By the time the film debuted, in 2003, Joey was already dead from Lymphoma. Dee Dee had OD’d shortly after his last interview in the movie and Johnny died a year after the film was made. A quote on the DVD box says he saw the film and found it disturbingly accurate. I learned a lot about the Ramones, and I thought I knew a lot about them already, they were very important in my household (I still remember how if my older brother Peter was having a rough day, he’d run up to his room, slam the door behind him, and play “Blitzkrieg Bop” on his stereo as if to blast the angst away). And yet it was, like white suburban blues, happy music that took your disappointment and made you feel positive, somehow in control of a world gone mad.

I had no idea, back then, that Johnny was hardcore right wing Republican often at odds with Joey who was an extremely liberal activist (I don’t seem to recall Johnny beside Joey in Little Steven’s Sun City video, after all). And yet, according to the filmmakers Jim Field (I wonder if he’s related to Danny Fields?) and Michael Gramaglia, Johnny Ramone (John Cummings to his family) was the business head of the group, as essential as the drill sergeant (and protector of “the brand”) as Dee Dee (Doug Colvin) was to the true punk essence of the material. Joey (Jeff Hyman) was the geek who loved rock and roll, the male Patti Smith, who really understood the transformative power of rock and how, if you close your eyes and attack the microphone you could be your own David Johansen (young Stephen Morrissey had a similar epiphany in Manchester, resulting in the Smiths). The film also reminds one that, despite how we lionized (canonized?) them for being defiantly uncommercial, the band wanted nothing less than a big stinky NUMBER ONE HIT RECORD – which sadly they never got.

As a chaser, I rented Hedwig and The Angry Inch again (speaking of the New York Dolls) which on second viewing, I loved even more. For entirely different reasons. The nuances in John Cameron Mitchell’s performance (think Joel Gray’s Cabaret “emcee” crossed with lip smacking Cher from her TV variety years) touch a wide variety of emotions, he’s funny, he’s tragic, he’s glib, he’s poetically confessional, but he’s never less than compelling. If Bugs Bunny was a “scissor sister” then Hedwig is your, um, man?

Yes, the original Off Broadway musical that resulted in the film wouldn’t have happened without a huge debt to The Rocky Horror Picture Show although I found myself thinking more of Ken Russell’s Tommy some of the time, and a few Wim Wenders films too. The other essential truth of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the musical score by Stephen Trask, a tour de force of Jim Steinmanish proportion but with enough earnest Hunky Dory Bowie-ism and real live punk rock ferociousness that you couldn’t call it “show tunes”. It’s not a parody of rock (as, frankly the Rocky Horror Picture Show could be termed, although I love it) it’s real rock.
The question of the day then.

What are your favourite (and favorite) rock music themed films?

They can be the best music documentaries or even narrative films that use the motifs of rock. So for instance, A Hard Day’s Night is not a documentary but it could be one of the best music movies ever made. Or you could choose Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten – a great documentary about the late mainstay of the Clash.

Tell me, I really wanna know.

The Ramones – from Queens to Eternity!

15 Responses to “Music on Film”

  1. Pokey Dokey Says:

    This is Spinal Tap. Its the best documentary made on “rock” life. Mocumentary be damned. Laughing at ourselves is the only way to learn who we are. Wouldn’t any real rock doc be essentially depressing?

  2. I agree that ‘Hedwig’ is heartbreakingly good on several levels. I must throw in my marbles, though, for ‘Stop Making Sense’ and ‘The Last Waltz.’ Sure, they’re obvious choices, but you can watch them over and over and still be excited and moved.

    I would also like to posit that movies about fictional rock bands never, ever work for me. I’m talking about your ‘Eddie & the Cruisers,’ your ‘Velvet Goldmines,’ etc. (mockumentaries don’t count). They fail at exactly the moment you hear the band’s music because they immediately alienate a whatever portion of the audience hates it or finds it less than authentic. ‘Almost Famous’ came pretty close, though.

  3. I thought “The Decline of Western Civilization Pt. II” was pretty great, though –in a similar vein–I hear the Anvil documentary is also quite killer. I love rock movies, from “Stardust” to “High School Confidential” to “The Buddy Holly Story”. I even loved most of “Rock Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” as an antidote to the standard biopic.

  4. End Of The Century in a way was depressing in that you saw how banal the world of the Ramones really was. Thats probably why their songs were so great; there was zero pretension. I loved the BW footage from old reel to reel videotape.

    End was also what I would call a “fan film” much like the They Might Be Giants film and in both cases I felt that the films suffered from not having much outside context (and I would add as a film maker that both could have used a it more pro advice in terms of pacing and overall craft). I found that TMBG a bit “inside” and my wife who had never heard them had trouble connecting with the film but loved the band a few months later live.

    Thats the debate, can a music doc be too inside or fan based or does making it appeal to a wider audience make it old news?

    So here I put two new music films on your radar that I recently saw at Hot Docs.” The Story Of Anvil” is a surprisingly moving tale of a Toronto based 80’s metal band that never made it but is still going.

    I hate heavy metal music and find it boring and tedious and the reason why this film was so good was that there was very little music in it. Instead the director chose to make the story about the friendship between the 2 aging metal heads and original members. It has been remarked that this film bares an odd resemblance to Spinal Tap but the twist is that by the end you are laughing with them and not at them and you actually care about them.

    Without spoiling anything here are a few thoughts that I had about it.

    1. For you Torontonians out there it will make you get homesick because it captures the Wilson Heights North York vibe so well. It will make you feel proud too because as somebody says “they didn’t make it maybe because they were Canadian” (for non-Canadians that is code for “too nice”).

    2. On the website view clip number 2 about their first song “Thumb Hang”.

    3. One of their wives, still decked out in rocker chick attire, says about her husbands still going rock dream ” I guess I wanted to be a rock and roll wife, that I am living part of that dream too”. I wish the wives were in the film more.

    4. After the screening there is a QA on stage with the band and everybody loved the film etc. I walk out after at a reasonable pace only to find that the band has run around the building to get to merch tables positioned just outside the theatre. A second ago, Rock Gods, now busting their hump to sell shirts and CDs. One would think that on this night they could get somebody else to do it but no. It proved that these guy really are a working class band not ashamed to pay the mortgage. And of course, the crowd loved them more.

    “Song Sung Blue”, the story of husband and wife duet that specialized in Patsy Cline music and Neil Diamond impersonation is much sadder and stranger tale.

    I would say that the website and clips dont’ give a clear sense off what the film is about but once again music the dream that wraps around the real story which is the love between this unusual couple. In a nutshell they continue to follow their musical dream despite bizarre accidents and declining circumstances. They basically are performers on the lowest end of the entertainment spectrum and when most others would stop playing to crowds of 2 or 3, they remain steadfast.

    I should also warn you that there are about 50,000 smokes consumed during this film.

    Despite the sadness of this film one can say that these two never did a show less than 100% and that is what makes them compelling. Two additional notes on this film…

    1. The high point of their career (possibly their only highpoint) is a duet with Eddie Vedder doing “Forever in Blue Jeans” (which I should add that Paul Myers also does a great imitation of).

    2. See the film and THEN read interviews about how and when the Real Neil saw the film and gave his blessing to use the music (There were actually two versions of the film.. with and without the Diamond tunes).

  5. Debbie Salisbury Says:

    Hands down it has to be “Hard Core Logo”. Directed by Bruce Macdonald. Rockumentary based on Michael Turner’s book. Brilliant.

  6. Did The Ramones ever actually come up with one truly original musical idea?

  7. Oh ya
    fave ROCK FILMS – Wild In The Streets – the mainstream LSD Rock fantasy freak-out money grab from 68 with friggin Shelley Winters and a very happening Richard Pryor. Classic. Personally it was a formative cinematic experience.

    A few years back in hogtown Andrew Loog screened the Rolling Stones flick that he “directed” from like, 65 or so, Dear Charlie, or whatever he calls it – the Stones won’t allow him to release it. There’s a scene at one of their shows where the kids riot and smash up the stage, but the WILD THING is those kids never saw that response on TV prior (word of the day) – what they did wasn’t prompted by media or anything – Maybe some snobby uptown folks were upset at a Stravinsky set WAY back, but when does music make you feel like smashing some shit. Loog captured a real moment – the honest result of the ROCK opening up repressed people – responding to the energy and ethos of The Stones, in their revolutionary NON-MATCHING wardrobe, A first apparelently!

    To think the it was the MUSIC that made the kids want to wreck stuff! Maybe it was also because the Stones are tiny, little guys – like jockeys, with bad teeth. But they still have their hair!!! What are the chances of that!

  8. SCOTT Dee!
    I watched Neil Diamond’s THE JAZZ SINGER for the first time recently.
    The MONTAGE is to DIE FOR – it doesn’t get better than that!
    And the ending??!!! – HOLY CRAP!
    Loop that shit, yo!
    His hairdo is worth the price of admission!

  9. pulmyears Says:

    Well, Kurt, I could get all musicologist and suggest that NO white rock band ever came up one original idea. But I will ask, in all seriousness, does Sheena is a Punk Rocker or Beat On The Brat or I Wanna Be Sedated sound like anyone else?

  10. I still go to Mean Streets for the way Jumpin Jack Flash introduces Johnny-boy as a character or Rubber Biscuit proves to be the perfect soundtrack for a drunken night out. Or even the way Be My Baby (I think that’s the Ronettes tune) opens the movie.

  11. Kurt, the most disturbing thing about the 1980 Jazz Singer is that Lucie Arnaz was the love interest. No actually it was Olivier’s cornball cantor, no actually it was Diamond growing a beard as a sign of inner turmoil, no actually it was that they thought we would not notice that every concert shot in the entire film (taking place over years) was shot on the same stage with the same lighting, no it actually was….

  12. ….Andrew Loog Oldham…I think that is Paul’s next book….

  13. In the Music Docs corner, I would have to throw down with – I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART (Wilco) and DiG. (Dandy Warhols & Brian Jonestown Massacre.

    Masterful tales of the creative process, friendships, promise and failure, eccentricity, triumph and despair – the dastardy music bidness – Just really compelling viewing, told by the artists themselves.

    The best thing about both Docs though is there is know required reading to really enjoy them. I knew little of WILCO but watching Jeff Tweedy hurl from tension and then have Yankee Hotel Foxtrot become a masterpiece and sold twice to the same record company! Well, I don’t know of a better ringing endorsement to trust your instincts and not give up.

  14. I got around to watching “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” over the weekend, and found it deeply disturbing to the point that it’s still sitting with me- churning my head and my stomach, over that fine line of sanity we all tread. The man clearly crossed that line decades ago, but had some sick, keen foresight to document his pain, hopes, and general mental deterioration as thoroughly as his own art (if not more so).
    I think I became more intimately equated with Daniel Johnston than I am with most family members. It was an eerie sensation, but for the sheer perverse pleasure, I recommend it.

  15. velvet goldmine

    mostly for the appearance of PLACEBO in it.
    what can i say? they’re my favourite band.

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